If only there were a zero-harm farm

May 27, 2022

Greg McFarlane of Vegan Australia explores the perennial topic of nonessential harm to animals in the production of plant foods.

The mainstream media have become vocal recently about the number of animals killed in plant farming. It seems any story that justifies the use of animals, especially eating them, is jumped on to support the argument that if you can’t be perfect, then why try at all?

We need to remember the aim of veganism is to avoid harming animals as much as possible. And one of the main ways to do this is by eating and wearing products derived from plants rather than animals. However, due to common agricultural and production practices, the growing and processing of plant products can involve some animals being harmed or killed. 

Growing pains

Growing plants can harm animals in a number of ways, including converting natural habitat to farmland, producing the manure, fish meal or blood and bone used to fertilise plants, and during harvest. Insects can be killed by pesticides, other ‘pest’ animals are intentionally killed to protect crops and stored grains, and some crops are fertilised by bee colonies managed by commercial beekeepers.

Pig farmer Matthew Evans points out that animals are killed in plant production in his book On Eating Meat. He claims one billion mice are poisoned annually to protect wheat in Western Australia alone. Evans took this figure from a 2011 column written by Mike Archer, and due to a misunderstanding by Archer, this figure is exaggerated by more than 100 times. The main point they are making, however, is that animals are harmed in plant agriculture – and while this is undeniable, it’s not on the scale that Evans and Archer would have you believe.

Fodder for thought

Authors such as Archer argue that a vegan diet causes more suffering than a traditional diet, claiming that plant farming results in over 25 times more sentient animals being killed per kilogram of usable protein. While he gives some evidence for this, he has over-estimated the number of deaths, and the argument has been thoroughly discredited. And what about the plants grown to feed the animals eaten by people?

A huge proportion of crops grown are used to feed farmed animals. In Australia, crops are the primary food source for pigs, chickens and other poultry, while dairy cattle are supplemented with feed and many cattle are fattened in feedlots. This means a lot more crops are used to feed these animals than humans. In fact, farmed animals eat twice as much grain as people in Australia. 

Just like plant foods grown for human consumption, the production of these feed crops can also cause harm to animals. Eating plants directly, rather than feeding them to animals whom we then eat, requires less land under cultivation and causes less incidental harm to animals. In addition, over half of the Australian landmass is used in the animal agriculture industry, with much of this cleared of native vegetation, endangering many native species.

A better way?

The fact that we can’t avoid causing some harm to animals does not invalidate the principle that we should avoid hurting others wherever we can. Even if we can’t be ‘perfect’, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try at all. The secondary deaths caused by growing and processing plant products simply does not excuse the deliberate killing of over half a billion farmed animals in Australia for food every year. I recommend the book But You Kill Ants by John Waddell for an in-depth discussion of this idea.

There is a fundamental difference between animal farming and plant farming. Animal farming requires the suffering and death of animals. Plant production does not. Because of this we should encourage better plant farming practices. By improving agricultural and production methods, we can reduce the nonessential harm to animals in plant food production. Even Matthew Evans, who has researched the number of animals who die in plant farming, concludes, “It’s quite possible that eating less meat might mean less suffering”.

We could also support alternative methods of farming, such as veganics and stock-free farming which employ strategies such as using green manures, companion planting, natural pest control, and so on. Other ways to prevent harm to animals could be improved planting and harvesting methods and non-lethal ways to prevent wild animals eating crops, such as netting, fencing, and sound-based deterrents. However, these alternative methods of farming are not yet widely used nor do they produce enough food to feed a vegan world.

Causing the least harm

Remember, the principle of veganism is to avoid harming animals as much as possible, including by not directly consuming animal products, by avoiding products tested on animals, and by ensuring that animal products were not used in the production process after harvest.

At the moment, it is not practicable to avoid consuming plant products where animals have been harmed in their production, particularly animals harmed before harvest. This means we currently have no choice but to eat plant foods that are grown and processed in ways that may have caused harm to animals. While this is unfortunate, we can and should still try to cause the least harm possible.

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